WHAT A SWELL PARTY IT WAS

Helen Chadwick was on the verge of stardom when she died suddenly in March. But though the obituaries called her 'the most important artist of her generation' only one journalist attended the inquest into her death

Helen Chadwick was running late the day that she died. At some point on 15 March, perhaps between leaving her house in Hackney and picking up a fax at a nearby gallery, or in juddering across London to the Victoria & Albert Museum to meet the curator of photographs and examine 18th-century tapestries, or in rushing to the Royal College of Art before it closed to pick up transparencies from some of her students, she managed to misplace half an hour. By the time she got to the Architects' Association, halfway back to Hackney, to plan a future collaboration and listen to a lecture and attend a private view, Chadwick was aching, even slightly woozy. In the bar afterwards, she rang her husband David to ask for a lift home. Instead of fizzing round the room as usual, she sat down. Someone offered her a glass of water; she said no. Then she fainted. Someone thought to check her pulse. There wasn't one.

The abruptness of the heart attack that killed Helen Chadwick, just before nine that evening, at the age of 42, has quietened talk of her since. The obituaries were naturally fond, and grand: "the most important artist of her generation," said one; a campaign began to win her the first posthumous nomination for the Turner Prize. Yet the critics did not dare judge her final work when it was hung, jewel-like, from the walls of the Barbican six weeks later. No other journalists went to her inquest in a small panelled room near St Pancras station. No newspaper repeated the pathologist's findings, tentatively given over the screech of passing trains, about her oddly undamaged organs and a possibly fatal virus. Meanwhile, Chadwick's friends still talk about her in a shocked present tense. Her husband David, baggy-eyed and shuffling, is trying to keep her pair of studios precisely as they were. A solemnity has settled, understandably, on a life that was actually far from solemn: "Helen would probably have quite enjoyed the coroner's court," said a friend before attending. "All the mystery of it ..."

When Chadwick died, her career was rising - the first woman nominated for the Turner Prize in 1987, the breaker of the Serpentine Gallery's attendance record with a glooping fountain of melted chocolate in 1994, the winner of rare transatlantic prestige at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1995 - but it had been rising, and falling, for 20 years. She was no art-world James Dean. Her succulent sculptures and earthy installations and glowing photographs of flowers and flesh, both alluring and repulsive, suggested ways of artfully exploring the body during the Seventies - paths followed later by Damien Hirst, the Chapman brothers and the rest. And Chadwick's persona was influential too: she was a pioneering female artist trademarked by determination, black bobbed hair, tiny black tailored suits and a vast half-moon smile that danced around parties. "You really had a sense of what women warriors and goddesses were like," says a former collaborator with a straight face.

But alongside the fierce perfectionism and life-loving sensuality in Chadwick and her work, another, more morbid current ran. "I want to catch the body at the moment when it's about to turn," she once said. "Before it starts to decay, to empty ..." She often photographed her skin, just beginning to wrinkle as she entered her thirties, then, later, took her interest inwards, making smeary landscapes out of her cells. "The last vestige of autonomy is the self-sufficiency of the cell," she wrote in an essay in 1989. "But it will yield to the impetus of a virus ..."

This interest in human vulnerability and impermanence stayed with Chadwick - although she felt that it was somehow "a risk" - as her reputation and its demands on her grew. Two years ago she began photographing dead human embryos, collected from the Assisted Conception Unit at King's College Hospital. Month by busier month, she manipulated them under the microscope, mounted them, and arranged for their exhibition in ever more galleries. Then came the culminating irony: she called the work Stilled Life; days after finishing it, she died. Had the art killed the artist?

Mortalityhad nearly caught Chadwick once before. She was born prematurely in May 1953. Between then and this March, however, her life was full to bursting.

Her mother was a Greek refugee, her father a railwayman from east London; they met in Athens during the Second World War. In 1946 they moved to the new suburb of Croydon, and Chadwick arrived seven years later to an immaculately middle-class world: a bungalow, a brother, and her dad's new career as an estate agent. With the chestnut trees and water tower of Littleheath Wood right behind their road, Croydon could also seem fantastical. Aged two, Chadwick made mud pies in rosebeds, and was chased by gardeners; a little older, she wandered the woods and brought home lame animals. The neighbours complained to the council about the ferret and goose in their back garden.

Her mother wanted to be a proper English housewife, choosing curtains and playing the piano, but every now and again the Chadwicks went back to Greece to visit her family. Once, visiting their mountain village in the Peloponnese, they were met by a huge welcoming committee; Helen did not forget it: "I thrive on attention," she would often say later.

Back in Croydon she passed the 11-plus, "unexpectedly", and learnt to say "crikey!" and "goodies" with flat south-London vowels at Croydon High School. Biology and geography were her strong subjects, dazzled by nature as she was; Chadwick failed art O level. Her mother, however, had started taking her to exhibitions. As they drifted through dizzying rooms of Magritte and Bacon, Chadwick spent much of the time watching her mother's oscillation between delight and disgust. Helen had dabbled in sculpture since she was nine, but she had no idea art could have this dual effect. She abandoned a place to study archeology and anthropology at Exeter University and applied for a fine art foundation course instead.

Her parents had separated, so Chadwick chose Croydon Art College to be near her mother. She soon discovered she couldn't really draw or paint, but she could make and arrange the strangest things: self-portraits in jelly, casts of her face in chocolate and liquorice. Even from Croydon, her artful narcissism drew wider attention, with Chadwick, still a teenager, receiving reviews linking her to the international avant-gardists of the Fluxus movement.

In 1973 she arrived at Brighton Polytechnic to take an art degree dressed head-to-toe in black leather, her self-certainty already as large as her motorbike. She worked in film, sculpture and video, but her aesthetic had constants: originality, a lack of loose ends, and an obsession with the body - even the cushions she made were finely stitched from human hair. "Her works were very experimental but she was in charge of the experiments," says Ian Potts, who used to teach her. "It was like the air she breathed and the wine she drank - art was her total being."

Chadwick also knew how to get things done. Her strong little hands tried, learnt and stored technical tricks like an artist's encyclopedia; and the exotic Greek arch of her eyebrows worked well with "the men who kept the keys to the cupboard," as Mick Hartney, another lecturer, puts it. She gave advice and amassed followers among her fellow students. For her degree show in 1976 Chadwick produced an extravagant half-hour of performance art called Domestic Sanitation: she and three friends, sealed in latex costumes, Hoovering, dusting, and undergoing gynaecological probing in a dungeon-like living-room as Donny Osmond and an American voice promoting beauty products crackled from a nearby radio. The feminist polemic in all this was strong and clear, but what caught the eye was the alien array of props Chadwick had made to dramatise it - bulbous padded dresses, halfway between clothes and furniture, unsteady shoes like minature rocking chairs. Hartney was so impressed he helped film it.

Chadwick, however, was outgrowing Brighton. At weekends she went up to London to buy other strange clothes on the King's Road from a shop called Let It Rock, which soon became Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm MacLaren's Sex and a birthplace of sorts for punk. Chadwick enrolled for an MA at the nearby Chelsea School of Art just in time for the fun.

In February 1977 she found herself somewhere bohemian to live as well. Beck Road was a double strip of Victorian terraces, fine-featured but semi-derelict, increasingly marooned in the south-Hackney traffic and earmarked for demolition by the Inner London Education Authority to make way for a college car-park. Chadwick and two dozen other artists, including the sculptor Debbie Duffin and the (then) musical enfant terrible Genesis P-Orridge, saw the creative possibilities in the houses and their area's long east-London vistas and moved in. After two anxious years the squatters persuaded ILEA, partly through a typically immaculate Chadwick dossier on the road's history, to rent the houses rather than reduce them to rubble.

Beck Road then became a hive of home studios. Residents lent each other materials and learnt where the local carpenters lived who could help with the difficult bits. Chadwick established a presence as she had in Brighton, giving advice, going to local gallery openings and employing neighbours. She stood at the bus stop in her leathers - taxis wouldn't come out here - and made Beck Road her new family. (Her mother had moved back to Athens, her brother to Sussex to run a sheep farm.)

One of Chadwick's first Hackney friends was a young Ivy League graduate from New York called Maureen Paley, who was studying at the Royal College of Art. When they met in 1978, "Helen was already a star," says Paley. "She had her Louise Brooks hairstyle and red lips. I said, 'Who's that girl?' " That year Chadwick persuaded Paley to strap herself inside a canvas mock-up of a cooker, along with other friends, for her first London show, another feminist-performance piece called In the Kitchen. No one complained.

Paley has stayed in Beck Road ever since. She wears red lipstick and runs a grey-painted Tardis of a gallery, where Chadwick sometimes showed her work and arrived to get her fax on the last morning of her life (Paley was on the phone and couldn't hang up). Chadwick showed her how to convert her terrace into its current cool space: "Helen was always talking about craftsmanship - a constant fount of information about where you should go to get a particular button... She truly loved materials."

This love of making and making-do - oddly common among contemporary artists so often accused of airy conceptualising - drove Chadwick's career. She got tips from her then boyfriend Philip, an architect. Her early-Eighties sculpture series Ego Geometria Sum used mathematically precise plywood models of items from her past - a bed, a piano, a tent - with ghostly images of the adult Chadwick photographed onto their flat surfaces. The effect took weeks of mixing chemicals in the dark and gentle warming with hairdryers to achieve.

When she emerged from her studio, however, Chadwick left her DIY side behind. She flitted, sometimes flirted, her way through parties and openings, listening with her head to one side like a small bird, laughing a throaty laugh that dwarfed her careful speaking voice. She liked to dance and talk about sex and eat enough meat for two (at school she had been called "Spaghetti" for her lean-bodied voracity). People spotted her bobbed hair through crowds: "Sometimes I had a sense that going out with her was like going out with a rock star," says Paley.

Chadwick's image had long been one of her projects, in her art and in her life - her clothes were always picked and pressed with infinite care; during the mid-Eighties, her work shifted away from feminist agit-prop and into more autobiographical, more sensual forms. For an installation called The Oval Court she photocopied her naked, arching body and a cornucopia of fruits and wild animals, then arranged the sheets to form a teeming blue-tinted sea. Its spectacular ripeness gained Chadwick her first mainstream exposure: in 1986 the ICA gave one of its floors to The Oval Court. This exposure became profile-raising notoriety when a companion piece, a seven- foot glass tower called Carcass filled with garden and domestic detritus from her Beck Road neighbours, sprang a small leak onto the carpets in a next-door room. Panicking, the ICA staff moved the steaming column, splitting a seam in the glass. Then they laid it on its side. Ten gallons of fermented brown slime sloshed along the now-horizontal tower, blew off its end, and shot towards the facing wall. Newspapers noted the mess; a year later Chadwick was nominated for the Turner Prize.

She failed to win, but her status rose: in 1990 the former punk was appointed to the visual arts advisory panel at the Arts Council. The same year she was invited to exhibit at a photography festival in Houston, Texas, one of a growing number of American and European engagements. Painstaking as usual, Chadwick was helping hang her contributions when she found she needed a screwdriver. She asked a passing technician; he was David Notarius, an erstwhile local artist with curly hair and a bear-like gait; they fell in love.

In 1991 he moved to Beck Road and they married. Two decades after arriving there herself, Chadwick was less interested in making an impression at the bus stop and, with more work to do, keener on privacy and domestic peace. Behind her lace curtains, she had cleared the long ground floor of her house for immaculately stacked studio space; outside, she grew an exotic tangle of figs and vines. "There was life out of the house, and there was life in here," says Notarius, sitting round-shouldered in their rebuilt kitchen. "We had a different life."

They were not rich. He did freelance computer work for a "parasitic" oil company; she still had to teach at Brighton, then at Chelsea School of Art ("She was a figurehead," says Tiffany Black, one of her students at the former). The house did not acquire central heating - via specially tubular, sculptural radiators - until this spring. And by the early Nineties Chadwick's reputation, while growing, especially in art schools, was not perhaps as wide or certain as it should have been. Private collectors in Germany and Switzerland bought her work in quantity, but in Britain she was less marketable. With her cottage industry in distant Hackney rather than a big West End gallery or agent, partly out of choice, Chadwick relied on acquisitions by public galleries. The V&A loved her; Charles Saatchi, apparently, did not.

In 1993 the Serpentine Gallery agreed to give her a solo exhibition, then delayed its opening until July 1994; a whole shoal of younger artists swam through the newspapers in the interim. Undeterred, Chadwick finally took her chance, and overwhelmed the gallery's modest spaces with the most potent pieces of her career. Effluvia had photographs of blinding Op-Art brightness, a grisly and gorgeous sculpture intertwining sausage- like intestine and golden hair, unearthly casts called Piss Flowers made from the hot impression of her urine on snow, and, most spectacular of all, the sickly sweet bubbling brown cascade of her fountain, Cacao.

Chadwick got her attention. People came back a second time, with their children; Effluvia leaked off the arts pages and became news. Her own fax started to spew like a ticker tape: a tour of South America for the British Council, a CD-ROM with Peter Gabriel.

The trouble was, the calls never stopped. Chadwick spent more than two hours a day fixing problems at current and future exhibitions - this spring she had shows arranged in 10 countries, from Uppsala to Indianapolis. Sometimes she rescued exhibits herself: when Cacao started clogging up she went down to the Serpentine, stuck her arms up to the elbows into the blood-hot goo, and scraped the chocolate sediment away. But perfectionism learnt in quieter times was not necessarily suited to juggling international art stardom. "We'd spend half an hour arguing about whether an adjective could be cut from the catalogue," says Nicola Triscott, who organised her last exhibition at the Barbican Centre. "It never would be - she'd win any argument."

Yet Chadwick craved quiet. Constantly accumulating projects squeezed out pauses for reflection, and the decompression of unstructured research; "Would that I still had the time," she confided in an interview during Effluvia. Just before last Christmas, a film crew shooting an adaptation of Jude the Obscure along Beck Road, now spruced up and elegant enough for period drama, inadvertently damaged her telephone line. "We weren't getting any calls," says Notarius. "It was great ... A lot of the time she'd be working and she'd say, 'I wish I could just drop all this and go to Greece.' "

Chadwick had bought a ruined house on a mountainside above her family's village, with a view down to the sea. Most summers, she would hide there for a heat-calmed week or two, reading, avoiding her commissions and the phone (which was down in the village), and rebuilding. Mick Hartney ran into her there one year: "I saw a side of her that was quite unexpected. She would take my youngest son Tom down to the beach every afternoon and tell him a Greek myth. He was besotted."

Chadwick always had to get back, though. Last autumn it was to her painstaking embryo work: threading her way through the ethical bureaucracy, winning over the Assisted Conception staff at King's, trying to make art out of the most delicate matter and medical technology. "From about October I don't think she actually stopped working at all," says Zelda Cheatle, a gallery owner who had intermittently shown Chadwick's work. The artist began to show small signs of strain: high blood pressure in November, a premature pinching and creasing around her still-bright eyes. She began to seem "driven" to friends, rather than just determined. After decades free of illness she felt dulled by flu.

It was not like Chadwick to say so, however. David heard about a sore throat; otherwise, she kept smiling and planning their meals around paint- drying times. She was careful: none of her artist's poisons splashed her neat work clothes, or slipped in to attack her own vulnerable cells. She did not take drugs or smoke. Yet somehow, over her life's last weeks, or months, or years - the pathologist paused in humble confusion at this point - a virus called myocarditis entered Chadwick's body. On her frantic final day, it may have acted.

Then again, no one really knows. The pathologist suggested a link to her heart attack but declared no proof. Chadwick's friends always come back to tiredness, then remember that busy people don't all fall down dead. Then there is the explanation no one welcomes: malign chance.

Perhaps this uncertainty is appropriate. Unlike some of the artists who followed her, focusing hard on the rise in their trajectories, Helen Chadwick never thought too much about definite achievements or final reputation. Too young and daring in the Eighties, too old and established in the Nineties, she just worked on: "I don't think you can come up with some culminating verdict or understanding," she said in 1992, ending a documentary she presented about Frida Kahlo, the visionary but crippled Mexican artist. "Experience passes through you [and] you have to try and digest it in some way, assimilate it - and then let it pass." Then Chadwick blushed slightly, and laughed her throaty Croydon laugh: "If you see what I mean..."

! BBC2 is reshowing Helen Chadwick's film on Frida Kahlo, Mon 11.15pm.

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